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Leading During the COVID-19 Crisis

One of my favorite moments from the movie Remember the Titans is the half-time scene in the final game. The Titans are losing against the best team they’ve played all season. Coach Boone, a man who had been unwavering in his will to win, uncharacteristically seems ready to concede defeat.

And then something extraordinary happens. About midway into his talk a player named Julius finds the courage to speak up, “Coach, with all due respect, you demanded more of us. You demanded perfection. Now, I’m not saying I’m perfect, because I’m not. But we have won every single game we’ve played until now. So this team is perfect. We stepped out on the field tonight that way. And if it’s all the same with you, Coach Boone, that’s how we want to leave it.”

The team was confused, demoralized and defeated. The scoreboard said they were losers, and they believed it. But in just a few words Julius turned them around, reminding them that their hope didn’t come from what the scoreboard said, it came from who they were. They were the Titans. One team, one soul, one mission. And when they walked back onto the field, every single one of them stood a foot taller as a result.

Hope Is Who You Are

What does this have to do with our current situation? Like the Titans in that moment, your team is feeling demoralized and confused by COVID-19 and what it all means. It’s easy at times like this to get distracted from what’s most important. But this is the moment your team needs clarity most, and they are looking to leadership for answers.

Your team desperately needs to be reminded that their hope lies not in their circumstances, but in who they are – their character and culture.

As tempting as it is to focus exclusively on consoling the team or frantically firefighting, they need an invitation to rise to the challenge, to come together as one to accomplish something extraordinary. It’s half-time, and everyone is hurting and anxious about what the future holds. That’s precisely why this is a rich opportunity to make a strong statement about culture.

COVID-19 Is a Burning Platform

Dave Briere, SVP at WestRock and client of Team Trek, frequently uses the term “burning platform” to describe the existential threat of global competition. It is his compelling reason for why culture is mission-critical to getting sustainable, long-term results. This is what a burning platform does; it frames the problem in a way that brings clarity and conviction and moves us to act with a sense of urgency.

I’ve yet to meet the leader who doesn’t see culture as important. However, that’s not the same as saying it is critical to our future survival. The truth is most leaders have yet to find their burning platform, and so culture often takes a backseat to everything else. I’m not finding fault here; it’s easy to take culture for granted when the economy is humming along, and the scoreboard says we’re doing just fine. Culture always matters, but external threats have a way of exposing the cracks and motivating us to act with a sense of urgency. It is when the threat is real and the stakes are high that a burning platform is most compelling.

COVID-19 is that burning platform, if we choose to make it that. We can either use the crisis as another excuse to put culture on hold. Or, we can use it as a burning platform to put a spotlight on why culture matters now more than ever.

Communicate a Clear Vision for the Culture

Every company we work with has a corporate vision. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I mean a vision for the team and culture. Coach Boone was crystal clear on his vision. They were going to win, but they were going to do it as one team. He didn’t use the words character and culture to define what one team meant, but that was what he was talking about. That was the point of him taking them to Gettysburg, to remind them they were involved in something bigger. And he was uncompromising in breaking them down and building them back up to achieve his vision.

That’s what vision does. It gets our eyes focused on the horizon instead of the pain in front of us. It focuses action. It engages the heart. It moves us to set aside our personal agendas to be part of something bigger. In the absence of vision, people wither. Your people need to hear from you right now.

Focus on Culture Like Your Survival Depends on It

I remember when my kids were little and how they responded when they got hurt. Almost always after falling and scraping a knee, they looked to me before reacting. If I reacted with panic, they did too. If I reacted with calm, so did they. We do the same thing with our leaders. We study them carefully to discern what is most important and to gain clues for how we should respond. Yes, we hear the words. But what we are really studying is what they do, particularly when the stakes are high.

The truth is I have no idea how this crisis is going to end. What I do know is there will come a time when your team looks back and remembers how you responded.

They’ll either wince as they remember the pain and chaos, or they’ll look back with a smile as they trade fond memories and shared experiences of how the team came together to rise to the occasion.

Regardless, they’ll walk away with a clear sense of what you value most. Every leader says culture is important; only the best make it a priority when it’s least convenient to do so. My strong encouragement is to take advantage of this incredible opportunity to make a strong statement and accomplish something big when it comes to the culture of your team.

Here are some practical ways to do just that:

  • Revisit your vision for the culture to ensure it’s clear, compelling and engages the heart

  • Hit the reset button with your leadership team to ensure alignment on the vision

  • Share your vision for the culture with everyone

  • Communicate your burning platform for why that vision matters

  • Make the vision and burning platform part of your daily conversations

  • Use every meeting as an opportunity to spotlight a principle from the High Performing Teams model or your organizational compass

  • Use this opportunity to hold your people managers to a higher standard (people will rise to your expectations, and they will discover they had the potential all along)

  • Coach your people managers to engage people’s hearts; use this as an opportunity to define what encouraging the heart really means

  • Don’t cease to hold people accountable for toxic behaviors

  • Be clear on what the priorities are; be equally clear on what activities need to be put on hold

  • If your business is experiencing downtime, get clarity on the important priorities you haven’t had time or space to tackle; keep people focused on things that really matter

  • Encourage everyone to use this time to sharpen the saw and work on personal development


Team Trek is a world-class provider of leadership training, team building, coaching and culture programs. Go to to receive the next Journal in your inbox.


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